John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for October, 2013

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Morrissey’s Autobiography is nearly a triumph, but ends up mired in moaning

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Review: Morrissey is brilliant when he’s writing about pop music, but far too many pages are given over to court cases and feuds

Thanks to a hyped-up fuss that has done its job in spades, this much we all know: owing to its author’s provocative cheek and his publisher’s marketing nous, Morrissey’s autobiography is a Penguin Classic, which means it shares its imprint with Ovid, Plato and good old Thomas Hobbes. Self-evidently, though, it’s also a high-end example of a literary genre that now seems to form at least half of the publishing industry’s raison d’etre: the celebrity memoir, 2013’s most notable examples of which include the self-authored life stories of Mo Farah, Jennifer Saunders, Harry Redknapp and Katie Price (again).

Despite career wobble after career wobble, the author has become an unlikely British institution: as the blurb on the back reminds us, “in 2006, Morrissey was voted the second greatest living British icon by viewers of the BBC, losing out to Sir David Attenborough”. As unthinkable as it still seems, the prime minister will presumably be chillaxing with a copy as soon as he gets the chance.

What awaits him is, in its own way, as faithful to the celeb genre as all the other books that are piled into branches of WH Smith at this time of year. Though its 457-page splurge of text occasionally suggests a bold stylistic experiment – there are no chapters; nor, for the first 10 pages, any paragraph breaks – as with so many famous-person books, it also betrays a lack of editing. So too do some very un-Morrissey-like American spellings (”glamor”, “center” – this is in the UK edition), his strange habit of jumping between tenses, and the odd passage that simply doesn’t make sense. “I will never be lacking if the clash of sounds collide, with refinement and logic bursting from a cone of manful blast,” he writes on page 90. You what?

And yet, and yet. For its first 150 pages, Autobiography comes close to being a triumph. “Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big,” he writes, and off we go – into the Irish diaspora in the inner-city Manchester of the 1960s, where packs of boys playfully stone rats to death, and “no one we know is on the electoral roll”. In some of the writing, you can almost taste his environment: “Nannie bricks together the traditional Christmas for all to gather and disagree … Rita now works at Seventh Avenue in Piccadilly and buys expensive Planters cashew nuts. Mary works at a Granada showroom, but is ready to leave it all behind.” And when pop music enters the story, he excels. Before the Smiths, Morrissey fleetingly wrote reviews for the long-lost music weekly Record Mirror under the name Sheridan Whiteside, and his talent for music writing is obvious. By the late 60s, he is marvelling at hit singles by the Love Affair, the Foundations and the Small Faces; in 1972, as with so many thousands, he marvels at David Bowie miming to Starman on an ITV pop show called Lift Off With Ayshea. “It seemed to me that it was only in British pop music that almost anything could happen,” he writes, which is spot on.

School, unsurprisingly, is hell, complete with Catholic guilt, unending brutality, and one grim incident in which a PE teacher molests him. When he leaves St Mary’s secondary modern, he falls into a period of torpor and self-doubt. And then Johnny Marr pays him a visit, and his life takes off – while, in keeping with an unwritten rule of celebrity memoir, Autobiography takes a serious turn for the worse.

There are not many more than 70 pages on the actual experience of being in the Smiths, and around a quarter of those are devoted to complaints about their record label, the supposed commercial underperformance of their singles, and Geoff Travis, who founded Rough Trade records in the mid 1970s, and has clearly not been on Morrissey’s Christmas-card list for several years. At first, what Morrissey says about Travis and his colleagues can be waspishly funny: before they signed the Smiths, he reckons, Rough Trade’s brand was “tubercular … hand-crafted on a spinning jenny”. But after pages and pages of moaning, it all starts to pall. Moreover, a pattern is set: any calamity or mishap is always someone else’s fault.

As the story winds on, the clash between this account and the story as told by Marr and others becomes violent: as all other credible accounts have told it, the Smiths broke up because Morrissey would not be handled by a manager, and as their business dealings turned chaotic, Marr was worn down by not just playing the guitar and writing songs, but dealing with lawyers and booking hire-vans. Small wonder that the two of them “signed virtually anything without looking”, or that their bond came to grief, probably the single biggest event in Morrissey’s adult life. In the absence of even the barest recognition of any of this beyond a tortuous passage that claims that all managers “merely manage their own position in relation to the artist”, Autobiography presents the end of the Smiths as a mystery, sullied by some innuendous stuff about Marr supposedly growing envious of Morrissey’s profile, which does not stand up to any serious scrutiny.

“Beware, I bear more grudges/Than lonely high court judges,” went the lyric of Morrissey’s 1995 single The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get, and he wasn’t lying. As the bitterness overflows, there are still flashes of wit, along with some rather rum views (his opinion of the Kray Twins might strike some as charitable). Circa 1994, he finally finds love and companionship with one Jake Walters, who has “lived a colourful 29 years as no stranger to fearlessness” and who has “BATTTERSEA” tattooed inside his lower lip. Morrissey evidently melts – but soon after, he reaches his peak of bitterness and unrestrained verbosity: 40 pages on the court case in which Smiths drummer Mike Joyce (”an adult impersonating a child”, he reckons) successfully made a bid for 25% of the band’s posthumous earnings, and a judge named John Weeks apparently became the human being Morrissey hates most of all. Here, all levity evaporates: it’s understandable that he feels so aggrieved, but when the verbiage dedicated to this stuff threatens to eclipse what he has to say about every other aspect of his career, something has gone badly wrong.

Towards the end, things pick up: he enjoys a career renaissance, moves to Rome, and once again finds romance and companionship with a character he calls Gelato. But a sour taste remains, and it’s hard not reach for a line from that beautiful Smiths song Half A Person, released a quarter-century ago: “In the days when you were hopelessly poor, I just liked you more.”

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The Tories are creating a hostile environment – not just for migrants | John Harris

Monday, October 14th, 2013

With an election not far away, it doesn’t matter if policies work – only that they come down hard on malingerers and migrants

With 18 months until the next election, welcome to the latest phase of Conservative politics. Modernisation now looks like a brief nightmare from which a relieved party has awoken, and most elements of the Tory agenda seem to have been signed off by their campaigning guru Lynton Crosby. As a very insightful piece in the current issue of the New Statesman puts it: “No 10 aides boast that campaign strategy and policymaking are now inseparable.” In other words: plans are afoot that will have a profound effect on millions of lives, but they have almost no basis in what we once called “evidence-based policy”, and everything to do with desperate electioneering. The result is a meandering popularism that ignores questions about where the country might end up and fixates on the most cynical of political games.

Last week, we got Theresa May’s new immigration bill, full of moves that have been talked up for the last 18 months, which looks set to become law in the spring. No matter that the number of illegal immigrants in the UK may be as many as 1 million, that thousands of them have long since had UK-raised children, and that many toil in parts of the economy that would crumble without their contribution: as well as deterring potential illegals in the future, May wants them either to be forcibly removed much more easily, or to feel the sharp shock of a “really hostile environment”, and decide to go home, wherever that is.

Private landlords will now have to run checks on their tenants (thanks to the Lib Dems, something to be trialled in a single area pre-2015, though the Home Office insists this move boils down to the policy being rolled out on a “phased basis”). Getting a bank account will involve being cross-referenced with a list of “known immigration offenders”; temporary migrants will be charged a “levy” for use of the NHS; powers to collect fingerprints and search for passports will be extended. “Most people will say it can’t be fair for people who have no right to be here in the UK to continue to exist as everybody else does,” May said last week, and that was that: to use the argot of the last Tory campaign Crosby masterminded, she’s thinking what they’re thinking, which is all that matters.

And, of course, the policies won’t work. The urban demi-monde of landlordism, illicit employment and lives lived in the most precarious circumstances will balloon. Moreover, as the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association has pointed out, a “hostile environment” for one part of the population will entail a pretty trying time for everyone else, and routine identity checks for the whole adult population. Mindful of what might be called the British liberal inheritance, even Nigel Farage gets that: “This legislation would lead to a society where scrutiny in daily life would threaten individual freedoms and liberties,” he says.

As the Tories’ approach to so-called welfare hardens to the point of institutionalised cruelty, another election-oriented wheeze is about to arrive. In April anyone who is long-term unemployed will have to fall in with the regime the government has called “Help to Work” and, under pain of having their benefits stopped, be forced to either spend 35 hours a week in their local jobcentre, do indefinite unpaid community work, or agree to “compulsory training”. The “sanctions” system which is already pushing people into borderline destitution is sure to become even more arbitrary and punitive.

In political terms, whether any of this will actually work is scarcely relevant. After all, the existing work programme doesn’t work: thanks to the National Audit Office, we now know you’ve got a better chance of finding a job if you go nowhere near it. The bedroom tax doesn’t work: the entirely imaginary prospect of three- and four-bedroom houses being freed up was always going to bump up against the complete lack of one- and two-bedroom social housing. After another punishing report from the National Audit Office, it is looking increasingly like the grand project that is universal credit will be a disaster. But for now, it doesn’t matter: more than ever, politics is about the manipulation of appearances rather than any concrete outcomes, and, in the collective Conservative mind, as long as the party is coming down hard on an imagined army of immigrants and malingerers, all is well.

This year’s Tory conference made all this plain. Everywhere you looked were pristine banners dedicating the proceedings to “hardworking people”. The Conservative record was reduced to the simplest essence: “Welfare capped, crime down, immigration down.” Party conferences are seemingly designed to make you feel like you are going mad, but this one often felt downright chilling – so cold, mechanical and crass that it rather brought to mind such dystopian films as V For Vendetta and Children of Men (which, to quote from one synopsis, depicts the UK in 2027, when “refugees desperate to flee the chaos that has gripped much of the world have landed on British shores, only to be met by a police state that ‘hunts them down like cockroaches’”).

Amid the bathos and farce of British politics, that might sound alarmist. But if nasty populism meanders on and on, you run the risk of arriving at a society that will feel hateful and soulless even to the millions of people who were said to be willing its creation (including, I would imagine, plenty of Tories). If you want a sense of where we might be going, consider the fact that the Red Cross is to get involved in food aid in Britain for the first time since 1945, and imagine the most likely results of these latest government moves: even more desperate people, existing on society’s margins, and living from hand to mouth – untouchables, in all but name, there to be kicked around for other people’s political advantage.

Last week, we got a flavour of what Labour thinks. The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, sounded more nuanced notes than Theresa May, but said moves on illegal immigrants’ bank accounts seemed “sensible”, and that the idea of checks by landlords was “sensible in principle”.

And then came Iain Duncan Smith’s new opposite number, Rachel Reeves. “Nobody should be under any illusions that they are going to be able to live a life on benefits under a Labour government,” she said. “If you can work you should be working, and under our compulsory jobs guarantee if you refuse that job you forgo your benefits, and that is really important … It is not an either/or question. We would be tougher… If they don’t take it [the offer of a job] they will forfeit their benefit.”

In 1984, Orwell coined a term for this kind of political expression. He called it duckspeak: a bland but pernicious honk, these days the sound of intelligent people stooping to conquer, trying not to think about where all their meandering populism might take us.

John Harris © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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Conservative conference: does the future belong to them? – video

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

John Harris and John Domokos: The Tories have come to Manchester with tough talk about ‘hardworking people’, more cuts, and workfare for those who fall behind. While demonstrators outside predict a riot, the Conservatives’ youth wing is in zealous agreement with the leadership

John Harris
John Domokos

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The Beatles – All These Years: Volume One: Tune in by Mark Lewisohn – review

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

The first volume of the long-awaited and definitive biography by the ‘Beatles oracle’ takes the band up to 1962

“I declare that the Beatles are mutants,” the LSD evangelist Timothy Leary once said: “prototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species, a young race of laughing freemen.” In the frazzled mind of Charles Manson, the Beatles were equally supernatural, but sent to Earth with rather darker intentions: they were seeding their songs with messages of apocalypse.

Where did these four incredibly talented people actually come from, and how did they find each other? There are so many of us, forever fascinated by the story, who still cannot quite fathom how the band managed to make music so endlessly full of interest, while also embodying the idea that as the world was changing at an unprecedented rate, they were always ahead of everyone else.

The Beatles themselves, in order to stay halfway sane, always denied that anything out-of-the-ordinary had gone on. Paul McCartney still talks of them as “a good little band”. When they went their separate ways at the end of the 1960s, John Lennon had stern words for anyone who thought their demise was tragic, or even significant. “People talk about it as if it was the end of the world,” he said. “It’s just a rock group that split up. It’s nothing important.”

But it was, and still is – so much so that they are now surely the most analysed musicians in history. The books written about the Beatles cover every aspect of their story – and they keep coming, from unwieldy works of culture studies, to the drab memoirs of fans, aides and hangers-on. The story as told by the group themselves is collected in a misnamed, door-stopping oral history called Anthology; in terms of prose style, the best all-purpose biography has long been Philip Norman’s Shout!, first published in 1981. In an age as nostalgia-soaked as ours, and in the case of a group so dissected and deconstructed, the one really pertinent question remains: is there anything left to add?

Mark Lewisohn’s new book Tune in is the best part of 1000 pages long. The product of at least eight years’ writing and research, and full of information sourced even before that, it runs from the band members’ family prehistories to the release of their first proper single in 1962. Two further volumes will appear, all under the umbrella title “All These Years”. Should you have £120 to spare, each book will also be published in an extended special edition which includes “hundreds of thousands of words of extra material, as well as many extra photographs”. This is the story told in Proustian detail: we will presumably at last know what Lennon actually shouts at the start of “It’s All Too Much”, the history of a company owned by Ringo Starr called Bricky Builders and the full life-story of McCartney’s sheepdog Martha. I have been a Beatles obsessive since the age of seven, but even for people like me, this all sounds as if it might be a little unnecessary.

The first edited-down volume, though, is largely a delight, and the story is told so definitively that, after this, that really should be it. Secondary sources are comprehensively mined; letters, public records and business documents have been found in places no one else ever thought to look; friends, associates and acquaintances have been interviewed over what seems to be a quarter-century. All that is lacking is substantial new testimony from the Beatles themselves, a point to which there are two responses: first, that the two most candid and iconoclastic Beatles have been dead for a number of years; and second, that the last people you should ask about the detailed history of the Beatles are the Beatles themselves.

McCartney, for example, remains of the immovable opinion that they refused to entertain the idea of visiting the US until they had a number one record on the Billboard charts: a nice story, but he should try booking Carnegie Hall at 10 days’ notice. His own accounts of his life have long been blurred and rose-tinted: a good biographer, by contrast, has to avoid the pull of legend, and be prepared to coldly debunk as much as they lionise and celebrate. But it is a token of how astonishing the story of the Beatles remains that even a telling as particular as this one dispels none of the magic.

Any account of the band members’ lives before fame and success will be as much social history as musical biography. The roots of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison are tangled up with migration to Liverpool from Ireland. All four Beatles were war babies, and blessed by two strokes of luck: their fathers were either in reserved occupations or, in the case of Jim McCartney, excused the call-up owing to impaired hearing. And they escaped the dreaded national service, which was phased out from 1957. All, apart from Starr, were grammar school boys, educated in institutions holding fast to tradition, but from 1956 on, at least some of that tradition was undermined by a seditious noise pressed into black vinyl.

The excitement of early rock’n'roll records – not least in a city still smattered with bombsites – can only begin to be imagined. When Lennon heard Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”, “it just broke me up. I mean, that was the end. My whole life changed from then on, I was just completely shaken by it.” Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally”, he said, was “so great I couldn’t speak”. McCartney’s first record was Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop A-Lula”, all nonsense-words and space‑age echo. “The whole song is purple in my mind because of the purple Capitol label,” he said.

Their world was quickly moving out of monochrome: mere records were enough to revolutionise their lives. Mid-50s Britain was hit by two pop-cultural waves: the boom in skiffle, which drew on country, blues and folk music, and emphasised home-made instruments and enthusiasm rather than technique; and rock’n'roll, which was much more transcendent. Aged 16 when he formed the Quarrymen – or Quarry Men: he and his fellow band members never seemed sure – in late 1956, Lennon started using skiffle’s modus operandi to deliver an approximation of rock, and he was off. McCartney joined him six months later, after their famous meeting at a church fete, and Harrison was recruited in early 1958 – he was just short of his 15th birthday. “It took me years to come round to him, to start considering him as an equal,” Lennon later admitted, but the chemistry was obviously right: after a spell in 1960 as the Silver Beatles (regularly spelled “Beetles”), by the summer of that year, they were the Beatles, for keeps.

Ordinary tragedies are magnified into unrivalled dramas by the knowledge of how they feed into the Beatles’ myth – most notably in the case of John Lennon’s mother, Julia. She was an untamed spirit whose maternal role in his life was soon taken by her sister Mimi; Julia’s relationship with her son was rekindled in his adolescence, and given extra spark by a sense of oedipal attraction. She was, Lewisohn says, “very much the girl of John’s dreams … the kicker of convention and bucker of trends … an older version of himself … irreverent, iconoclastic, uninhibited, witty, with a huge personality”. By the time Lennon was five, Julia’s partner was a waiter called John Dykins, an alcoholic. For the first time, a Beatles book goes deep into her death in the summer of 1958: a year-long driving ban for Dykins that led her to walk to a bus-stop near Mimi’s house, where she was run over by an off-duty policeman. ”To my mind, she’d been killed instantly,” said Lennon associate Nigel Walley. “I can still see her gingery hair fluttering in the breeze, blowing across her face.”

Nine years later, Lennon wrote the beautiful song “Julia”: “Her hair of floating sky is shimmering/Glimmering, in the sun.” As Lewisohn says, he had always been silent about her death, but when he finally voiced his feelings via music, it was obvious that, for his entire adult life, the bereavement had been at the core of who he was.

There are other tragedies, more than would perhaps usually afflict four young lives. The death of McCartney’s mother, Mary – from breast cancer, when he was 14 – doesn’t get nearly the same level of attention here as Julia Lennon’s, which is surprising given its likely profound effect on him, hinted at but not explored. He remains someone with a carefully cultivated exterior, who tends to talk about his personal history in soundbites, and rarely gives the sense of someone who is troubled. But “Paul was far more affected by Mum’s death than any of us imagined,” said his younger brother, Mike. “His very character seemed to change, and for a while he seemed like a hermit.” McCartney said he quickly “learned to put a shell around me”, which is telling. “Paul was so ‘nice’ you couldn’t get close. He was like a diplomat,” one of their early associates tells Lewisohn.

The sadnesses go on. The talented painter Stuart Sutcliffe, who became the band’s less-than-brilliant bass player, died of a brain haemorrhage at 21, leaving McCartney feeling guilty about his habitual digs at Sutcliffe’s musical abilities (in the wake of his death, Lewisohn reveals, Lennon and Harrison made a point of visiting his photographer fiancee, Astrid Kirchherr; McCartney stayed away). By this point, one gets the sense that losing people close to him had become for Lennon a kind of inexplicable curse (his Uncle George, Mimi’s husband and his de facto father, had also died). Richy Starkey, later Ringo Starr, faced his own challenges – a 10-week coma and a year in hospital after he contracted peritonitis (when he was six); and, just to test him, a further long spell in hospital after pleurisy turned into tuberculosis, when he first resolved to play the drums. The idea of talent flowering as if to avenge past suffering is a cliche, but here feels undeniable.

As the story goes on, there are further revelations, both minor and major. Starr’s later problems with drink are implicitly traced to his family: “My parents were alcoholics and I didn’t realise it,” he says. George Harrison’s lifelong distrust of anyone prying into his business might have originated in the behaviour of his maternal grandparents, who had seven children but were secretly unmarried.

During an early phase of their band’s progress, Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were billed as “Japage 3″ – a reference to their first names, and pronounced “Jay-page”. When they first played in Hamburg, Lennon, Harrison and Sutcliffe slept in one squalid backroom, while McCartney was billeted with their drummer, Pete Best, and thereby relegated to the bottom of the hierarchy. A letter home written by Sutcliffe acknowledged this with brutal simplicity: “Paul has turned out the real black sheep of the trip. Everyone hates him and I only feel sorry for him.” Two years later, they were signed by George Martin’s Parlophone label, not because – as previous accounts have suggested – he fell hopelessly in love with their irreverent northern wit, but thanks to a convoluted set of agreements that climaxed with Martin being handed them merely as a sort of punishment for having an affair with his secretary (soon to be his second wife). There is a great deal of such happenstance.

Best, the drummer sacked just as the Beatles began to break big, was always at one remove from the rest of them. He apparently shared little of their humour, was kept away from some of their closest friends – and, just to seal his fate, the other three combed their hair forward, while he stubbornly retained his Tony Curtis quiff. During 1961, Lewisohn says, he had settled “into a role he hardly ever varied … night after night – playing with his head down, avoiding eye contact, not smiling, projecting the study in moody shyness he knew would win girls’ hearts. Fine, but it was bound to wear thin for the other Beatles. Sometimes they wanted to see a spark when they turned around, some vibrancy, emotion, an engagement of eyes or mind.”

By far the most compelling sections of the book detail the time the Beatles spent in Hamburg between 1960 and 1962 – Starr was there, too, as the drummer with a Liverpool troupe called Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Tales of shared intimacy (as Harrison lost his virginity in a backstage bunk, they all applauded), petty crime, and drinking and drugging are explored, and either confirmed, or debunked: contrary to legend, Lennon never peed on a party of churchgoing nuns. The picture section includes an image of them gurning as they hold up silver tubes of Preludin, the German diet drug that allowed them to play punishingly long sets at the Indra, Kaiserkeller, Top Ten and other clubs, and which the ever-marginal Best always refused to touch. After their second trip to Hamburg, Lewisohn says, they were “bursting with the experience that only another 503 extraordinary hours on the Hamburg stage could have given them”; in a footnote, he calculates that the total time spent onstage on their first two German visits was 918 hours: “the equivalent of 612 90-minute shows… in just 27 weeks.” As he points out, this probably made them the most seasoned rock’n'roll group in the world, even before most people had heard of them.

Lewisohn is a Beatles oracle: he is the author of such exhaustive reference books as The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle, as well as reams of sleeve notes. He had a cameo in Shout!, not only as the self-styled Beatle Brain of Britain, but as a seven-year-old in his native Middlesex, so taken with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that he “stood in the garden as it played, shaking his head wildly while trying not to dislodge the cardboard moustache lodged under his nose”. Some of his prose betrays a slightly Pooterish sensibility: two non-white characters in the story are described as “swarthy” and “dusky-skinned”; and their manager and mentor Brian Epstein, whose closeted life provides the story with another fascinating strand of social history, is constantly described as “homosexual”. Here and elsewhere, perhaps you miss the flights of critical fancy of a pop-cultural theorist such as Greil Marcus, the sturm und drang of Elvis’s definitive biographer Peter Guralnick, or the grasp of rock music’s romance possessed by the Rolling Stones’s greatest biographer, Stanley Booth. Yet it takes a certain kind of person to write a history as thorough as this – and Tune in is only the start.

It ends as Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and, at last, Starr play their final club performances in Hamburg, recorded by another Liverpudlian musician and eventually put out as a double album – before the Beatles’ legal representatives thrust it into the realm of bootleggers. It is a shame this music has never been given an official release: despite its low-fi quality, it showcases exactly what you’d hope to hear: four people evidently delighted to have found each other, playing supercharged versions of Chan Romero’s “Hippy Hippy Shake”, Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talkin’ About You” and “Twist and Shout”, as the nightly German bacchanal swirls around them. On occasion, the recordings sound like an early variety of punk rock – vivid, muscular music, made by a quartet who are simply on fire: four laughing freemen, as Leary would have it, on their way to something incredible.

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